“No lick am!” my mother scolded again, this time adding a smack to my shoulder as she continued applying lipstick to my lips. Who could blame me? I was twelve, and it tasted fruity.
“Where we dey go?” I asked innocently, knowing that it had to be a very special occasion as my mother ordinarily would never let me put on make-up; and the few times she caught me fiddling around in her make-up bag, I got a good beating.
She did not answer my question immediately so I looked up into her eyes, and there was sadness in them; a sadness that her voice did not convey.
“Di uncle wey we see the other day dey come.” She said firmly, still fussing at my face.
I lit up almost immediately. “Uncle John? Di one wey give me biscuit?”
“Yes.” My mother responded with a firm nod of her head.
I was ecstatic. My mother ran a pepper soup joint out of the front yard of our house and it brought her customers from all over Warri, including the Oyibo oil workers whose faces turned red the moment the soup touched their lips.
Of all her customers, only a few sent a nod in my direction when I greeted. Many of them barely noticed me, but Uncle John did not only notice me, he was kind enough to buy me biscuits!
I kept my face terse, a solemn promise not to lick my lips playing and replaying in my head.
For Uncle John, I had to look my best.
“Good afternoon sir!” I greeted, beaming, as soon as Uncle John walked in.
“Afternoon Ebi. How are you?”
“I’m fine sir!”
“Wow, you look fine today oh.”
“Thank you sir!” My smile widened. He had noticed.
“Ebi!” My mother called, interrupting. “Carry Uncle John go visitor room.”
I frowned. She had not given me a chance to find out what, if anything, Uncle John had brought for me this time.
I assumed whatever they had to discuss must be important for the visitor’s room was where she often took guests so that they could talk privately.
As I turned to exit the room after Uncle John walked in, my mother appeared at the door.
“You go stay with am.”
I looked at her, puzzled. “Ma?”
There was that sad look in her eyes again, then it was gone almost as quickly as it had come.
“Stay with am. Anything wey im tell you make you do, do am. You be big girl now, and only me no fit dey suffer for two of us. So you go do your own. When im finish, im go give you money; make sure you bring the money complete.”
As she turned to leave, locking the door behind her, I caught something that looked like shame on her face. She muttered something under her breath about me being too tall for my age and looking older than I was. It sounded like she was arguing with an invisible person and trying to justify her actions, but I was too preoccupied with my confusion to think much of it.
“Ebi, come and sit here; beside me.” Uncle John beckoned, tapping the space beside him on the single bed.
I joined him.
Roughly fifteen minutes later, I lay on the bed alone and replayed the incidents of the last twenty minutes over and over again.
Perhaps she was desperate; after all, business had been a little slow.
Maybe it was normal, a rite of passage if you will.
Perhaps she did not know his intentions; maybe she thought he was just going to talk.
I made excuses for my mother until I ran out of them. One of them had to be right.
The door creaked and I jerked my head up, then relaxed a little as I saw Uncle John’s receding figure leaving room.
My mother entered immediately after, carrying a bucket of water and a strip of cloth.
Fresh tears fell as I saw her face.
“Mama-” I started, but she shushed me; wiping my face with her hands.
“Uncle John-” I tried again.
“No talk, no talk.” She said, helping me to a sitting position.
She said nothing else as she got me to a standing position and bundled up the bed sheets.
I wiped at my face, then frowned at the mix of tears and congealed make up that stained my hands. I turned to her to ask for the strip of cloth, and noticed her quickly count the money Uncle John had left beside the bed, and tuck the notes into her bra.
When my mother walked in moments earlier carrying a bucket and wearing a mask of grave sadness, I was convinced she had no idea what Uncle John had been about to do. Watching her choose to count and secure the money before tending to me showed me how utterly wrong I was.
That was thirteen years ago.
I wiped the mist from the bathroom mirror using the hand towel that hung from the rack above the Water Closet. Instinctively, I reached for my make-up bag and pulled out a single ball of cotton wool and a small bottle of olive oil. Touching the contents of the bottle to the cotton ball, I dabbed at my eyes to remove the last few traces of make-up. With the expertise of one that had done so numerous times, I unraveled the towel that held my wet hair together, and then shook my long mane violently by bowing three times in quick succession.
I was trying to accomplish my money-making, morning-after look.
Sure your performance the night before got you the agreed amount, but it was the extra performance the following morning that got you the real money.
The gimmick was fool proof: look irresistible and act reluctant. The more unwilling you appear, the higher the amount they are willing to pay.
I took a look at my reflection. Skin the right shade, hair wet but not dripping – with the curls defined and away from my face, face devoid of make-up…something was missing. Oh yes, mascara.
I had to look completely natural, but the straightening of my long lashes served to give me that doe-eyed look that they usually could not resist.
I am not sure what it is about an innocent-looking girl that men find irresistible. Considering the dirty thoughts that come to their minds, you would think they would want a girl just as dirty.
I took another look at my reflection. Who was I kidding? I was a dirty girl playing the part of an innocent one, and it was just that – an act.
I poked my head out the bathroom door to check on the senator. He had just stirred. He would soon be waking up. I had to time it right. By the time he woke up, I should be leaning in his direction, one exposed leg on the bed within his view and arm’s reach; applying lotion in slow, steady strokes. My towel should be tied so loose that leaning forward to apply lotion would slide it further down my chest, exposing the fullness of my breasts. Then when he calls my name or reaches out to me, I would look up at him, an almost naive look on my face – then the negotiations begin.
I tiptoed to the armchair that held my overnight bag and reached into it for my lotion. As I turned around to wait for the stretch that usually signaled the beginning of the waking up process, I heard a sound.
It was short but audible. Before I could be sure of what it was, the smell attacked my senses. My free hand instinctively cupped my nose as I looked at the sleeping senator in horror. He had changed positions; he was curled up in a semi-foetal position with his bum facing me.
I quickly changed locations, but not before seeing a bit of his hairy bare bum.
I almost gagged.
Now safely away from the “line of fire”, I took in his entire frame and sighed sadly. This was one of those times when I could not help but wonder how different my life would have been if “Uncle” John had not raped me that day so many years ago.
I remember when I finally quarreled with my mother over it, many years later.
“Which kin mama go carry her pikin go put for ashawo work?”
“I no carry you do anything. If you been no like am, why you continue am?” My mother spat.
There had been a bit of bad blood over the years because as I got older, her customers seemed more interested in me than her.
“I been know wetin I dey do? I be small pikin dat time nau.”
“Now wey you don grow nko?”
“Mama, we no dey talk about now. Na only twelve years I be dat time mama, twelve years!”
Something about emphasizing my age at the time seemed to sober her up.
“No be so I plan am.” She started in almost a whisper. “Oga Phillip na my regular customer that time, and im tell me say one of im friends wey just join them for rig dey come in, and im go bring am. As the guy just see you, im no fit commot eye again.”
She paused. When she continued, her voice was laden with guilt. “Nothing wey I no tell Oga John make im leave you, but im talk say im go pay double and…and that time I dey find money…” she trailed off.
In that moment, I finally saw the remorse I had been searching for all those years but I was much too bitter. Her reasons were just not good enough.
Even if she felt I was her ticket to financial freedom, the moment she heard me cry out in pain, she should have come back to her senses. Instead, she did nothing but quietly enjoy the steady income I brought in and for that, there was nothing she could say to me to that would make a difference.
I chuckled out loud when I remembered the reason she claimed that “Oga John” was so enamoured with me. He had referred to me as “that fine Oyibo girl.”
I am a long-haired, light-skinned, light-brown-eyed girl of mixed race, or a “half-caste” as my people would say; and it has been both a gift and a curse.